The number of pheasant hunters in the state in 2012 increased by 4 percent from the previous year, but the number of pheasants taken declined by an estimated 10 percent.
What this year’s pheasant season will look like for hunters is still up in the air, so to speak — largely because of the weather.
During this spring’s crowing count survey for roosters, results showed an 11 percent decline statewide from 2012.
But weather factors, including an April 14 blizzard that covered most of the state, still have biologists in limbo when it comes to production numbers for this year.
Stan Kohn, upland game supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said specific numbers won’t be crunched until sometime in August, when results from a brood survey begin to be compiled.
Crowing surveys differ from brood surveys in that they are conducted annually on 100, 20-mile routes in specific areas of the four pheasant regions of the state.
During the crowing counts, biologists drive designated 20-mile routes, stopping each two miles to listen for adult pheasant roosters that are crowing to establish their mating territories.
The crowing counts are done in late May and early June. And by about June 12, Kohn said, pheasants normally have started nesting.
But the blizzard, coupled with a lot of rain over the state in May and June, pushed back that nesting activity by a good two weeks, he said.
All four pheasant districts had lower counts than last year. In the northeast, it declined by 18 percent, in the southeast and southwest by 11 percent and in the northwest by nearly 2 percent.
While the crowing counts don’t provide conclusive data when it comes to what populations will be like come fall, it gives a broad picture of what hunters can expect.
“It gives us trends on numbers of roosters we hear crowing from one year to the next,” Kohn said.
While most of North Dakota had “real winter,” the southwestern part of the state was sparred extreme weather until the April blizzard.
Then came the rains. Kohn said by May, pheasants are initiating mating and setting up nesting territories, but with the wet months of May and June, delayed nesting was the rule rather than the exception in most parts of the state.
“A lot of those birds didn’t start nesting until after that wet weather ended,” Kohn said.
On the upside, Kohn said the spring moisture helped jump start grasses and shrubs pheasants use for dense nesting cover.
The thick cover should have provided better than average cover for nesting pheasants, but the hail storms that ripped through much of the state last weekend may have put a serious dent in this year’s hatch.
Normally, the peak hatch for pheasants in North Dakota is
June 12-15, Kohn said, but with the late start to the nesting season, this year’s crop of chicks was only about 4-5 weeks old when the hail rolled through.
Kohn said this was the first week Game and Fish staff has been able to get into the field to conduct a brood survey so little information is available about bird deaths from the storm. But he said his field work included a trip to the Glen Ullin area and he found significant damage to crops and other cover.
“I saw quite a few corn fields that were stripped,” he said.
While he has had no reports from landowners or others finding dead birds,“You can’t help but think the hail had some effect,” he said.
Some of the prime pheasant habit in the state, around the Hebron area and in parts of Emmons County, reported the hail storm lasting for periods of 15 minutes.
As widespread as the storm was, hunters likely will find pockets here and there that will be short on birds this fall, Kohn.
Pheasants and other wildlife populations were booming in 2006-07 when Conservation Reserve Program acres peaked at more than 3.25 million in North Dakota.
As of April 2012, North Dakota had 2.39 million acres in CRP. After accounting for the newly accepted contracts, more than 645,000 acres are scheduled to come out of CRP in North Dakota this year, according to the Farm Service Agency.
“There is a direct correlation between habitat and wildlife populations, and this is apparent when analyzing pheasant numbers,” Kohn said.
“For instance, in 2007 habitat was at a premium, the pheasant population was strong and total number of hunters surpassed more than 100,000 for the first time.”
Last year, nearly 86,000 hunters killed 616,000 roosters. In 2007, more than 107,000 hunters took nearly 908,000 roosters.
The number of resident hunters in 2012 was up 1 percent from 2011, while nonresident pheasant hunters increased 9 percent. Birds bagged per hunter decreased from 8.2 to 7.2, and each hunter spent an average of 5.4 days afield.
Counties with the highest percentage of pheasants taken by resident hunters in 2012 were Hettinger, 7.7; Burleigh, 7.7; McLean, 6.7; Morton, 5.7; and Stark, 4.7.
Top counties for nonresident hunters were Hettinger, 20.1 percent; Bowman, 8.8; Adams, 6; Emmons, 5.9; and McLean, 5.2.
Pheasant season statistics are determined by a mail survey of resident and nonresident hunters.